12 November 07 | Chad W. Post

This was by far the most uplifting, pragmatic, exciting panel at the Translation Marketplace. Not that the others were uninteresting, but for whatever reason, great independent booksellers have a way of making you feel like change is possible, like the situation isn’t that bad, like it’s really worthwhile to keep forging ahead.

Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum moderated this panel that included Sarah McNally of McNally Robinson, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company, and Paul Yamazaki of City Lights. With Mitchell Kaplan in the audience, we literally had five of the most knowledgeable booksellers in the country in one room discussing innovative ways for publishers and bookstores to work together to sell international literature. And with Barbara Epler from New Directions, Jill Schoolman from Archipelago, and Michael Reynolds from Europa Editions, publishers were also well represented.

Basically, this panel was an opportunity for each bookseller to highlight what his/her store was able to do to sell works in translation. Each panelist—maybe with the exception of Sarah—recognized that their store was somewhat unusual, yet they all put forth the idea that it’s not hard to sell international literature if you actually try.

Karl spent some time talking up Reading the World, a unique collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote international literature. Basically, this program is made up of 15 presses, 25 presses, and 200 bookstores that display these books and promo materials throughout the month of June. He also pointed out that independent booksellers need a new model to be able to survive, such as having a nonprofit component highlighting the good to the community that independent bookstores provide. (More on this in a future post . . .)

Sarah highlighted some interesting statistics from her store, including the fact that 52.5% of the titles in her fiction section are from international authors. She also said that the translations displayed on the front table of the store outsell American fiction on a regular basis. And echoing the day’s first panel, she believes B&N is to blame for helping create the prejudice that translations don’t sell.

Paul praised younger staff members at City Lights for creating all the great displays in the store. He also pointed out that booksellers are naturally curious about literature and though, and seek out international literature from unique, independent presses.

Rick mentioned the readings Elliott Bay hosts for translators, and the incredible success booksellers there have in handselling international literature, especially in connection to people buying travel guides.

Mitchell gave us all the great idea of “Food for Thought” book clubs through which restaurants and booksellers work together to promote international literature. For a minimal cost—say $50—readers would get a copy of a book and be able to attend a lunch or dinner at a local restaurant where a facilitator would lead a discussion of the book. (This seems so simple and easy to replicate . . .)

There was also a great conversation about the ways publishers and booksellers could collaborate, how we could create self-contained promotions for bookstores, how we could get the books into the hands of enthusiastic booksellers who are searching for something new and exciting—and I truly believe this conversation will continue well into the future.

What was most exciting was the sentiment that contrary to the typical doom and gloom, it’s entirely possible to find readers for international works of literature—we just have to remain passionate and keep trying. And communicate more.

It’s also worth noting that booksellers are way more in tune with what’s being published than any other segment of the industry, and are more knowledgeable about what readers actually are willing to read than anyone else. They are at the front lines so to speak, and deserve to play a much bigger role in conversations about book culture.

And I was also struck by the way all of these booksellers (and publishers) are focused on passing on their passion for great literature to younger readers/employees. They clearly embodied the belief that taking a long-term view and looking toward the future is much more valuable than focusing on short-term results. This idea manifests itself in different ways in the publishing industry, including the way a lot of non-profits are dedicated to cultivating an audience for a book over decades, rather than focusing on net sales for the first year following a book’s release. But it can be applied in many more ways, and building upon an earlier post about the role founders and directors can play in encouraging people to start new initiatives, I think it’s really valuable to keep this in mind when talking about something like the book industry that usually doesn’t offer the same financial rewards as other fields.


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